Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 19;   May 7, 2008: Ending Conversations

Ending Conversations


At times, we need to end the current conversation. It's going nowhere, or we have something important to do, or we just don't want to deal with the other person. Here are some suggestions for ending conversations.

Face-to-face, by telephone, in hallways, in parking lots or lobbies, or over video links, ending conversations is rarely easy. For instance, when a subordinate wants to talk, and emotions are high, and you must suddenly end the conversation because of another commitment, what then? How can you avoid damaging the relationship?

Autumn colors on Clopper Lake

Autumn colors on Clopper Lake in Seneca Creek State Park, Maryland. Nature provides many examples of ending conversations. In autumn in temperate forests, the end of the summer conversation comes with clarity and firmness: we never question its coming and we know that appeals for extensions of summer are in vain. Yet we look forward to autumn, and its glorious colors make the ending of summer thrilling and perhaps even welcome. An effective ending to a conversation might never meet that standard, but it can be firm and clear, and it can engender hope and understanding. If an ending does that, it might not be welcome, but it can be accepted without rancor. Photograph by Eileen McVey, NESDIS. Courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Excuse me, my plants need watering," probably won't work. It fails, because:

  • The conflicting commitment (watering plants) isn't urgent enough to justify an abrupt end. Your partner will probably feel insulted.
  • The conflicting commitment probably wasn't set up in advance, which makes it feel as if it were invented on the fly. People rarely write "water plants" in their schedules. To-do lists, yes. Schedules, no.
  • The tactic lacks a commitment, or even an opening, for continuing. That closes out hope, which might convey a message that you don't care.
  • The tactic doesn't seal the conversation. Your partner might very innocently say, "Oh, no problem, I'll come along."

And so we see that effective tactics for ending conversations have some common attributes. Here are some important ones.

Conflicting commitments must be scheduled and immediate
If you have a conflicting commitment, it should be one that was scheduled in advance. "I'm totally buried" is probably the only exception to this requirement.
Preclude continuation
The tactic should inhibit your partner from accompanying you as you exit the scene. If your partner can accompany you, some conversations will continue.
Preserve hope
Respect your partner's need to continue the conversation, either with you or with someone more appropriate. Offer another time or contact, or make a commitment to do so.
Respect true emergencies
Respect your partner's need
to continue the conversation,
either with you or with
someone more appropriate
In true emergencies, including threats to safety, deferring the conversation is appropriate only if continuation presents an even greater threat. Attend first to the emergency with the higher priority.
Respect ethics
Sometimes ethical or legal considerations preclude private conversation about certain topics — or any conversation at all. Acknowledge that and offer to work to find a suitable replacement for yourself.
Respect power
It's probably wise to give a free pass to anyone with organizational power superior to yours.

With all this in mind, a more effective closer for our example above might have been one of these:

  • I want to continue, but I have a meeting. Can we work out a time for tomorrow or the next day? Send me a note or leave word.
  • I know this is important, but I really can't talk with you about this. Have you talked to Wallace about it? Should I give her a heads up that you'll be calling?

I know my articles don't always address the precise situation you're facing, but I'm out of space and I must stop. Send me a note and I'll do my best to make a more relevant suggestion. Go to top Top  Next issue: Animosity Patterns  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrensTlyBFlZRFkYbnFkner@ChacvJpZAhglNEaDBuONoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

A droplet ploppingPlopping
When we offer a contribution to a discussion, and everyone ignores it and moves on, we sometimes feel that our contribution has "plopped." We feel devalued. Rarely is this interpretation correct. What is going on?
U.S. coinsThe Fine Art of Quibbling
We usually think of quibbling as an innocent swan dive into unnecessary detail, like calculating shares of a lunch check to the nearest cent. In debate about substantive issues, a detour into quibbling can be far more threatening — it can indicate much deeper problems.
A shouting matchCan You Hear Me Now?
Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the message that you actually did hear.
The robotic explorer OpportunityDefinitions of Insanity
When leaders try to motivate organizational change, they often resort to clever sloganeering. One of the most commonly used slogans is a definition of insanity. Unfortunately, that definition doesn't pass the sanity test.
A tensile failure of a bottom chord in a covered bridgeThe Problem of Work Life Balance
When we consider the problem of work life balance, we're at a disadvantage from the start. The term itself is part of the problem.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Conflict Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A tangle of cordageComing March 28: Four Overlooked Email Risks: II
Email exchanges are notorious for exposing groups to battles that would never occur in face-to-face conversation. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing dialog very difficult. Here's Part II of an exploration of some of those risks. Available here and by RSS on March 28.
A Mustang GT illegally occupying two parking spaces at Vaughan Mills Mall, OntarioAnd on April 4: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: III
People who behave narcissistically tend to regard themselves as special. They systematically place their own interests and welfare ahead of anyone or anything else. In this part of the series we consider how this claimed specialness affects the organization and its people. Available here and by RSS on April 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenAcFtomItleVImqfTner@ChacpjcXsJUSLbchnujaoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.